Build a Better Meeting

You're sitting in a meeting. It's not going so well, and you're not sure why. But you have a long list of things to do, if only you were elsewhere. We've all been there. And we're likely to be there again soon. It seems even the best-planned meetings can go awry.

It was during a board meeting several years ago that I started taking into account what I know about different learning styles. Maybe, just maybe, reflecting on my styles and those of my fellow board members would give me new tools to learn to help make meetings brilliant. The idea proved useful and I've since used this approach to improve the time I spend in every meeting.

Direction Style
A former co-worker of mine loved telling stories. As he began the chase one of our colleagues would ask, "What's the bottom line?" The speaker would become aggravated because he was just getting started. The bottom-liner would be frustrated because she had a hard time making sense of the story without first understanding its point. If the story-teller had known people have different direction styles, he might have offered a glimpse of the outcome before he began sharing the details.

One learning style involves the direction in which you prefer to receive and review new information. Some people learn in a global way, first seeing the big picture, then linking together broad concepts in large leaps. Others learn in a linear manner, taking small incremental steps towards a goal. Everyone has both global and linear processing, but many people naturally lean toward one.

If you're a global learner, you want to understand how your work relates to what you already know before more information arrives. In some meetings, you may not be able to follow a conversation when you just can't grasp the point. Once you do, though, you may quickly be able to make new connections and put things together fast.

If you're a linear learner, you may know you don't need to grasp everything prior to digging in. You want ample details and facts as you go, though. And step-by-step instructions help you solve problems, even when you don't completely understanding the topic.

Because these styles can run so counter to each other in meetings, introduce anything new with a preview of the big picture. Linear learners typically have the patience to listen while global learners need that information to move on.

Engagement Style
While coaching a chief executive and his chief financial officer, I asked, "Do you talk to think or think to talk?" The reserved accountant contemplated his answer while his boss blurted out, "I talk." That one answer changed the nature of their working relationship. It never dawned on the CFO that the CEO was just "thinking out loud" and said things to learn from the dialogue. And the CEO didn't understand why his most senior financial advisor didn't challenge him more often.

If you're a verbal learner — someone who talks frequently while learning — you may prefer saying what's on your mind, testing things out loud, and brainstorming ideas. Because you rely on others’ responses, you may crave working in groups and your patience probably wanes when a person prefers to reflect or ponder before speaking up.

If you're a reflective learner who wouldn't dare say something before thinking it through, you might need some additional quiet time to formulate a response. You may prefer to work alone or in pairs, and go slow in challenging situations.

Meetings, unfortunately, do little for either type of learner. Verbal learners may feel they're the only ones talking. Reflective learners may not have time to work through what they've learned. If you're a verbal learner, introduce statements with, "I'm just thinking out loud here," and ask someone to give you secret signals when you're talking too much. If you're a reflective learner, you may want to ask for silent time to formulate what you want to say. Asking, "Could you give me a minute to think this through?" might give the necessary pause to an activity for everyone to improve what they do.

Organizing Style
One of my clients created two teams to craft their vision and values statements. One group wrote while the other reviewed and revised. Some reviewers re-articulated every line with personal stories while others disagreed with each point. This irritated the writing team because they perceived it as moving the organization away from the core message, when it was probably, instead, a healthy expression of people bringing the language into their lives.

Each of us has adopted habits of ordering our thoughts by time, space, analogy, or contradiction. Although we use all four, most of us rely on one style more than the others.

If you're time-based, you prefer organizing by making lists, ranking items by priority.

If you're space-based, you order things by making a place for them and by breaking ideas into manageable parts. You may illustrate your ideas with flow charts or mind maps.

If you're analogy-based, you tend to liken each idea or situation with others you previously witnessed. You may be an avid storyteller, hearing information by comparing and fitting it into a context of what you've experienced before. Others may hear you relate everything said to something else in your life. "That's just like the time when..."

If you're contradiction-based, you may confront new information by challenging it. You may be a skillful debater who processes information by defining it against its opposite. Others may think you're negative or contrary, when really, you're just seeking a clear distinction and comprehending what something is not.

Recognizing the influence of organizing styles can help you work with people in diplomatic and nonjudgmental ways. For example, instead of saying, "You're getting us sidetracked," try, "Let's shift to another way of looking at this." Instead of, "Why do you always take a negative approach?" consider, "Let's be clear about what we can do."

By appreciating your own learning styles and looking from others' perspectives, you can help strengthen group dynamics and help everyone discover more. Or at least you'll find yourself closer to the end of the meeting. It isn't as if you have the attention span to actually listen to the facilitator drone on a minute more.

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